Monthly Archives: July 2007

Green wired teens

I share Anastasia Goodstein’s puzzlement over this survey by the generally reputable (or at least often-cited) Jupiter Research firm showing that teens who self-identify as green are also more likely than average to have bought stuff thanks to online marketing efforts:

“As a result of online advertising, 29 percent of green teens report having made a purchase in a traditional store during the past 12 months and 19 percent have made a purchase online. This compares favorably with online teens overall, of which 22 percent have made an in-store purchase and 13 percent online as a result of online marketing efforts.”

It seems ironic to me that “green teens” who are concerned about the environment are actually more rabid consumers than teens who don’t identify as “green.” Are they buying environmentally conscious stuff like hemp lip balm or just buying more stuff?

The benign explanation is that greener teens are more wired even than other online teens — and so it’s not that they’ve bought more stuff, just that they’re more likely to have been influenced by online marketing.

One less benign explanation is that a good chunk of green teens are just conspicuous consumers, and because green is the colour of the moment, they’re buying organic Fair Trade stuff to be seen with it. Next year it’ll be Hello Kitty again, and then after that, clothes made of beef.

Probably a bit of both.

Resources aren’t infinite

Traffic jamAn exchange I had with commenter “George in Toronto” about the price of municipal water has been playing in my head. George argues:

[In Toronto,] the water course is Lake Ontario. Any water that Toronto does not use simply continues East until it reaches the Atlantic. And any water that is used, in most cases returns to the lake through the sewer system. In Toronto, water is truly free. You can walk down to the beach and take a bucketful at any time.

You can, I argue, but only if seven million other residents of greater Toronto didn’t get there first. If they did, there’d better be a system that limited them to one bucket each. Otherwise, you’re going home with an empty bucket.

Meanwhile, Eamonn Butler of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute argues at the institute’s blog today that, if I read him right, essentially all roads should be toll roads. Certainly that all crowded roads should be.

If charging does not deter traffic, the charge is not high enough. There is some price at which the traffic will flow. If the charge makes people avoid the morning peak, all the better…

The market is the best way of allocating most resources, roads included. Of course, you have to cut the other taxes on motoring, and provide realistic alternatives for those priced out by the charge. But without some such solution, congestion will inevitably get worse: and that costs businesses and the public dear.

Which puts him in practical agreement with Steven Cohen and Jacob Victor of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who are at Grist Mill today arguing for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion charge plans:

Some critics erroneously view congestion pricing as yet another expensive environmental protection program that would operate at the expense of economic productivity. But the success of the plan reflects the fact that many business and political leaders, like Bloomberg, finally realize that environmental sustainability and economic efficiency go hand in hand.

(I had trouble deciding what to quote from Cohen and Victor’s short essay; the whole thing is very much worth reading.)

What the water and road-capacity issue have in common is this: We have a lot of water and we have a lot of roads, but these things are not infinite. When we think of any resource — a watershed, space in a highway system — as infinite, we eventually run into problems, and adapting to solve those problems is a shock.

  • We thought the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb waste gases was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought the seas’ capacity to absorb waste liquids was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought our lakes’ and rivers’ and aquifers’ capacity to provide fresh water was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought when roads got clogged, we could widen them and solve the problem. Doesn’t work like that.
  • We thought when we started to run low on spare electrical power, we could just build more power stations. Not quite.
  • With water, there’s a more immediate concern than the natural supply: the treatment plants reach their limit and the pipes reach their capacities long before the lake runs out.

The challenge is that with all these resources, we’ve built systems that assumed that there would always be more fuel, more water, more room for waste in the air. The limits on these things are very high, but limits there are. And as soon as there’s any degree of scarcity at all, the rules have to be different. Suddenly, we need to ask who has the most right to these things. We can try to set up systems to make sure everybody gets what they need, but we cannot let everybody have what they want.

Now we have to adjust — to a reality that has always been there, we just haven’t realized it — and that hurts.

(Photo credit: “.“, Flickr/fffriendly.)

Spare a thought for Tuvalu

The way it’s told isn’t so great, but this account of what’s happening in the tiny archipelago nation of Tuvalu indicates one of the more significant externalities associated with our enthusiasm for fossil fuels. The country is, as you probably know, in very serious danger of being swamped by higher seas as more water runs from glaciers on land into the oceans. The highest point in Tuvalu is only a few feet above sea level.

The Tuvaluan government has been vocal in urging industrialised nations to take urgent action on climate change. Enele Sopoaga, the former permanent representative of Tuvalu to the United Nations, in an earlier interview with IPS expressed extreme frustration at “the double standards of industrialised nations” for inaction on climate change while criticising other countries about human rights policies “while they are playing with the lives of island people and the Inuit” — referring to the native peoples of the Arctic Circle, whose traditional livelihoods are being destroyed by global warming.

In our system, there’s nobody for the people of Tuvalu to go after, no way for them to do it, but their lives and property are nevertheless being threatened in quite a direct way by every kilo of carbon dioxide the rest of us put out. It’s not right.

That said, I don’t have much time for the sentiment expressed here:

Although it is likely to become the first nation of environmental refugees, because Tuvalu has virtually no greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy projects there do not qualify for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) funding. CDM is a market mechanism created by the Kyoto Protocol that allows polluters in one country to earn “carbon credits” by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in another.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on CDM projects around the world, but not a penny for Tuvalu, said [scientist Sarah] Hemstock, who found this situation “appalling”.

But tradeable credits aren’t meant to be economic-development tools. They might have that effect, but that’s not the point. They’re supposed to be ways for people in richer countries to pay for easy carbon-emissions reductions in places where the locals can’t afford to. No emissions, no credits.

Which isn’t to say that the people of Tuvalu aren’t entitled to some help, but they’re also not entitled to pervert the CDM system, which is troubled enough as it is.

Better than a ban

I struggle with whether cities should be banning particular products because they’re deemed environmentally unfriendly.

Plastic bags, for instance.

On the one hand, they represent just about everything bad about a disposable consumer culture. Made of petroleum, given out by the dozen, ordinarily used once — maybe twice if they don’t already have holes in them by the time you get them home — and then deposited in landfills for archeologists to find 10,000 years hence.

On the other hand, lots of things are bad and we don’t actually forbid them.

I like to believe that two pricing innovations would make a difference. First, wadded-up plastic bags take up lots of room in trash cans, so maybe if cities charged residents directly for garbage disposal, more of use would realize the plastic bags aren’t worth. Second, a price for carbon might push up the price of the bags just enough that they’re no longer worth using. If a plastic bag cost even a penny, it would be too much.

Plastic bags are entirely the product of economic externalities, I think — I hope. Styrofoam’s the same way, a product that works only if the real costs are passed on to others.

If you’re buying soup, the cafeteria where I work offers you the choice of a Styrofoam bowl or one made of china, which you can take back to your desk or wherever else you’re eating as long as you promise to bring it back. Normally, that’s what I do. But today I wasn’t paying attention, and the fellow at the counter put my lunch in Styrofoam. Not what I’d ask for, but no big deal this once. Except that apparently they’ve got a batch of bowls in the wrong size. They don’t hold as much as the cafeteria insists is one serving. So over my protests and with the best of intentions, the fellow dumped the chili from the Styrofoam into a china bowl, topped it up, and threw the Styrofoam away.

The worst of all possible worlds: a discarded Styrofoam bowl and a china bowl I had to bring back to be cleaned and sterilized.

As part of an inane conversational gambit, I mentioned this to the woman at the next desk. She, it turns out, is always struggling with servers in coffee shops when she brings in a reusable travel mug — they’re constantly using disposable cups to make drinks in, pouring them into her mug, throwing out the disposables, and handing her mug to her.

Somebody’s doing a bad job explaining the marketing strategy to the front-liners. It’s costing the customers aggravation and the companies money.

Today at Green Options, Gavin Hudson offers up some generally useful tips for greener dining, which includes a call for political lobbying:

Here’s the good news: increasingly, a number of large cities are passing legislation that bans the use of Styrofoam containers in restaurants. Many other cities are considering similar action. Legislation like this is important because Styrofoam is not recyclable in most places and does not quickly decompose so sits in landfills. The more Styrofoam we prevent, the fewer open spaces will need to be converted to landfills to hold this Trash (with a capital T). And not all of trash ends up at the dump: quite a lot finds its way into ocean ecosystems as well. Here‘s a visual. Chemicals in styrene products are also harmful to human health because they attack the central nervous system.

You can encourage your city to pass a similar ban on Styrofoam by contacting your city council. Also, talk to restaurants and stores that use plastic cutlery or bags about biodegradable plastics. If you already live in one of those forward-thinking cities with a ban on Styrofoam, you can help restaurants by letting them know how much you appreciate them following this eco-friendly policy. Supporting restaurants and companies that are doing things right flexes your power as a consumer to make a difference. You can also help the city by letting them know if you come across a restaurant using Styrofoam.

This is what happens when the underlying economic rules are wrong. City councils ban things, business operators violate the rules, nosy citizens snitch on them, inspectors come out, tickets are written …  Surely investing in fixing the underlying economics makes both more financial and more moral sense.

What to do with a broken wine bottle?

Problem: Ontarians buy a lot of wine and liquor from the government booze store. The glass bottles are recyclable, but they’re different colours, so they have to be sorted first because mixed glass isn’t worth much in the recycling trade. Drinkers tend to throw their bottles into their recycling bins any old way and they all get smashed up together and sometimes the pieces just get landfilled.

Solution 1: Get people to be more careful. Not realistic. How many different bins for glass can one person be expected to keep?

Hmmm.

Solution 2: Get the government booze store to take back empties, the way the privately operated Ontario beer-store monopoly does with beer bottles.

REJECTED by the government-run booze store. Too expensive. We don’t do that Why don’t you try the privately operated Ontario beer-store monopoly?
Hmmm.

Solution 3: Get the privately operated Ontario beer-store monopoly to take back wine and liquor bottles. We’ll charge a deposit at the government-run booze store, which you can get back if you go to a whole other store that sells something else, which you might or might not drink.

Yes!

Result: A 58-per-cent return rate. Craziness at the beer store, where people who just want to buy beer compete with bottle-returners for the clerks’ time. Smugness for the government.

Unexpected side-effect: Danger for beer-store workers, who are accustomed to dealing with whole, reusable beer bottles instead of wine and liquor bottles that get taken into beer-store custody, separated by colour and then smashed, possibly throwing glass dust into the air.  Health-and-safety lawsuits doubtless imminent. Government-run booze stores as happy as ever.

It boggles me that Ontario’s retail alcohol industry, which is all ultimately operated by Ontarians’ own government, is run this inefficiently. I expect high prices and indifferent attention to customer trends — I don’t expect the different parts of the system to be at war with each other quite this overtly.

Why China has to do something

James Fallows, The Atlantic‘s man in China, offers a two-image photo essay on the air in Beijing.

Sustainable is always cheaper

Writing at Green Options, Philip Profrock explains why sustainability can’t be a fad, whatever the critics say:

Green buildings save money. An energy efficient building may cost a little more to construct, but over time, the cost of operation (and the total cost of ownership) will be lower. Building owners, developers, architects and engineers will continue to use green products because they make for better buildings.

It is difficult to sustain the same high level of energy for a movement after it has won. When I was young, I remember protests and concerns about the use of DDT and the effect it was having, particularly on eagles and falcons. There isn’t that much public attention given to pesticides these days. In large part that is because pesticide regulation has been adopted into laws and regulations…

In the same way, people who advocate for green building today may be like people who clamored for sanitary practices in food handling a century ago. We no longer have a social movement dedicated to cleanliness in meat packing because it has moved from being revolutionary to being policy.

I’m often deliberately reminded about the green push of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and how that seemed to pass without having made much of a difference. But back then, we found the policy guts to stop dumping chlorofluorocarbons into the ozone layer, to chop our acid-rain-causing emissions of nitrogen and sulfur oxides, and to start recycling in a big way. Those were great big changes, and only 10 or 15 years later we argue about the details, not about whether or not they’re good ideas.

As Proefrock points out, some the work to promote energy efficiency is already done: energy costs money, and in more and more jurisdictions, it’s costing to consume pretty much what it costs to produce. Cheap energy is no longer seen as a public good to which individuals are entitled, mostly because governments realized they couldn’t afford to treat it that way. So more people are making sure their houses are better insulated and their furnaces are turned down.

That’s better all around, including for the fight against climate change, even if that wasn’t the point.

Now, we have to make more difficult changes to put more of the economy on a sustainable footing, the biggest — the only non-negotiable, non-delayable — being finding a way to put a price on carbon emissions. Once paying that price, and finding ways to not emit so that we don’t have to pay it (such as by unplugging electrical devices we’re not using, or buying ones that don’t suck power when they’re on standby), becomes a routine part of our economic calculations, we’ll not only be living on a healthier planet, well be richer, too.

Conservatism and environmentalism

This leafy wilderness is getting crowded. Andrew Sullivan’s fully in, it seems.

Of course, to some extent, the environment involves a public good that only the state can regulate… It’s foolish to deny this. What traditional conservatives can uniquely bring, however, is a way of improving environmental policy to embrace more market-friendly structures, and a better appreciation of how the private sector is most likely to come up with new energy sources. There’s a fruitful right-left synthesis here if we can all grow up and find it.

Sullivan’s inspired by this thoughtful essay by the arch-conservative Briton Roger Scruton in The American Conservative, warning about the dangers of leaving the whole field of environmental policy to the nannyish Left. Scruton:

A revival of trusteeship is the only hope for the future, and this attitude is natural to human beings. They enter the world through no choice of their own, to be greeted, as a rule, by the love of parents and the security of home. The trustee is the one who recognizes that his home, and all that it means, are inherited things, things to be safeguarded and passed on. This attitude exercises itself at the local level in the voluntary associations and small institutions of civil society.

This is a lovely passage and I admire and respect the sentiment, though I find it a little too mystical for my sensibility. Nor am I necessarily concerned about large-scale solutions, as long as they’re simple and rules-based. A carbon tax, whatever the implementation problems, is an example of a large-scale policy that requires the clout of a national government to implement properly.

Indeed, emphasizing local responses could be ineffective in dealing with a global problem. I see challenges like climate change as essentially economic, in that polluting the air, for instance, means taking something that doesn’t belong to you — somebody else’s clean air — and using it up.

When you’re making rules governing economic behaviour, the broader the application, the better. They should be few, but strong and applied equally to everybody. Free international trade, buttressed by firm and clear securities laws of wide application, are good examples of broad rules that lay the groundwork for individuals to pursue their own prosperity. If rules on emitting carbon need to be laid atop them, so be it.

In that sense, I do share Scruton’s sense of the central challenge:

The real cause of the environmental problems we face is not so much large private enterprises or the pursuit of profit or even capitalism as such. It is the habit we all have of externalizing our costs. Consider air travel. If somebody offers you cheap flights, you will take them rather than the more expensive flights offered by a company that puts some of its profits into rectifying the environmental damage caused by airplanes. This is human nature: we try to ignore the damage done by our unnecessary journeys by air if someone else bears the cost of them.

But after addressing that central challenge, rather than taking local authorities, and civic institutions and civil society groups to be the next-most important actors, I think it’s up to individuals to adjust. And once they do, however they do it, so be it.

Paying the real full cost for city water

waterfallThe Residential and Civil Construction Association of Ontario advocates spot-market pricing for water:

Harry Kitchen, economics professor at Trent University and author of the report on financing, noted that consumers pay far less for water than what it actually costs. “That’s because, historically, the municipalities have not included asset replacement costs in calculating their water rates. The impact has been an inability to maintain and upgrade these systems.”

Some of the key recommendations in the two reports are metering, full-cost pricing, and greater private-sector participation. With metering, consumers pay for the amount of water they use. This promotes conservation. As well, metering allows the application of variable rates in order to reflect the season of the year or time of day of water use.

Here’s a Toronto Star story on the idea, too.

They’re working from this study (PDF) by Professor Kitchen who’s one of a very few genuine academic experts on municipal finances and talks sense every time I hear him. At length and with due academic rigour, he makes the straightforward point that municipal infrastructure such as water pipes are falling apart because cities don’t charge what their services actually cost.

In Ontario, at least, they’re tantalizing close to doing so. They’re required to use what’s called “full-cost pricing,” but that just means cities have to figure out what their systems cost to run, and make sure those costs are reflected in the water and sewer rates. That sounds right, but in practice, they charge the exact same price 24/7/365, regardless of the capacity strain the system is under, and frequently leaving themselves nothing extra to repair or expand the water system with.

Furthermore, because there’s no discount for using water at off-peak times, people turn on the taps whenever they feel like it, meaning the demand spikes are atrocious. To accommodate them, the water system needs to be overbuilt.

Kitchen and the construction association call for close metering of water use, among other things, with rates that vary with demand and time of year. This is what Ontario’s electricity system is gradually being heaved toward, over quite a bit of opposition from people who don’t want to pay more for power. (They’re usually the ones who really should.)

Variably priced water would also make it a lot easier for municipalities to raise rates to reflect the damage that city water use does by draining local waterways.

Don’t expect anything to happen till it’s crisis time, though. That’s what it took with electricity.

Bloomberg’s congestion charges revived

Duly noted: NYC’s traffic plan first had to crack Albany’s gridlock.

As I read it, this is very, very, very far from a done deal, just a political compromise to meet a deadline to file some paperwork to get some federal funding for the idea, if it actually happens. A key deadlock was between New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, and State Senator Joseph Bruno, a Republican, who, according to the Associated Press, just despise each other:

Although Bruno and Spitzer supported the mayor’s “congestion pricing” concept, negotiations with the skeptical Assembly Democrats never started while Bruno was calling Spitzer a spoiled brat and Spitzer said Bruno chose summer vacation over doing the people’s business. Calls for investigations of each other’s use of state helicopters, Bruno’s claim that Spitzer used state police to spy on him, even Spitzer’s bouncing of a Bruno staffer from a news conference, were part of feuding that became so heated it raised eyebrows beyond New York.

“Now, now boys,” tsked the headline in The Economist of London. “Even by Albany’s standards, their recent feuding has caused new highs, or rather new lows, of dysfunction.”

The Bloomberg plan was just a casualty in the crossfire, before it was bandaged up, given some painkillers and sent back out there to fight another day.

So it’s good the New York City congestion charge hasn’t been killed because this politicking, which had nothing to do with the issue, might have made the city miss an arbitrary deadline set by another government, but again, it’s wrong that that might have happened at all.